Friday, November 09, 2007

The Worst of Times

JUST in time for Christmas, a group calling itself the Consumers International World Congress has come up with a list of the worst products for 2007 and the companies that make them.

Let me say right off the bat that I'm generally skeptical of organizations that call themselves "international" or suggest that their mandate is so large that they are, in fact, a "congress."

More often than not, they turn out to be a couple of zealots with laptops.

But in this case, the organization in question claims to be made up of 220 member groups from 115 countries whose goal is to "to secure a fair, safe and sustainable future for consumers in a global marketplace increasingly dominated by international corporations."

A noble cause.

It's just too bad they didn't come up with a name for their award, like the Corvairs or the Marlboros to commemorate a truly bad product.

This year's honorees include:

The Mattel company, "the makers of beloved children's toys, much of it covered with lead paint from its many manufacturing plants in China," according to the consumer congress. "The CEO first blamed China, then admitted the problem lay more with company product design flaws," the group said.

Actually, the folks at Mattel apologized to China for damaging its sterling manufacturing reputation. Two weeks later, Mattel announced it was recalling more than 170,000 Mexican-made toy kitchens sold in the United States and Europe because the pieces posed a choking hazard. Que lastima!

Coca-Cola "for unabashedly marketing packaged tap water. While the company rightly points out that the packaging on its popular Dasani brand bottled water doesn't specifically say it's spring water, it doesn't specify it is not, either," the group says.

OK, but guess who else got caught with their hands in the municipal water supply? Pepsi, whose Aquafina brand comes from the faucet, as it turns out. Indeed, about 25 percent of the bottled waters consumed in the U.S. come from municipal water supplies. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a study that included this tidbit on bottled water labels: "Spring Water" (with a picture of a lake surrounded by mountains on the label) was actually from an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site.

Kellogg Co. "for selling junk food to kids. ... The company recently told the New York Times that 27 percent of its U.S. advertising budget was spent on targeting kids under 12," the group contends. "But with childhood obesity on the rise, critics charge the company has a responsibility to stop marketing its high sugar, high fat food to kids."

Take your kids for a stroll down the cereal aisle at the local supermarket sometime if you want to see this play out in real time. Of course, the Kelloggs and McDonalds of the world have been targeting kids for decades in their advertising. That's why God invented parents. To say "no." Try it sometime. It's grrreeeaaat! ...

Takeda Pharmaceutical Company "for pitching sleeping pills to kids." The U.S. arm of this $10 billion Japanese company took out a reminder ad ... using school buses, pictures of chalk boards and the like to remind users that "it's back to school season, time to reorder your sleeping pills," the consumer group writes.

Outraged critics screamed foul, but it still took the FDA six months to get the ad off the air.

But truth be told, this is a chicken and egg problem. According to the New York Times, the use of sleeping pills among children and very young adults rose 85 percent between 2000 and 2004 in yet another sign that parents and physicians are increasingly turning to prescription medications to solve childhood health and behavioral problems.

So what's a Big Pharma company to do? Listen to its public, obviously.

These firms are all well deserving of this recognition. But there are so many recalls and consumer alerts these days, it's a wonder we get through the day alive.

Consider these recent recalls:

Susan Bristol Inc., of Boston, Mass., recalled about 1,100 christmas sweaters with feather trim. The marabou feather trim on the sweaters is dangerously flammable.

Homelite Consumer Products, Inc., of Anderson, S.C. recalled about 6,900 chainsaws. These saws can operate while the engine is at the idle setting, posing a risk of serious lacerations to the operator and bystanders.

Life Fitness Division of Brunswick Corporation, of Franklin Park, Ill., recalled its exercise treadmills. The treadmill can unexpectedly accelerate, possibly causing the user to lose control and fall.

Ethan Allen of Danbury, Conn., recalled about 7,000 American impressions and new country rectangular dining tables. These dining room tables can be missing sufficient stability blocks that could result in the table collapsing.

And, of course, Sony's lithium-ion laptop batteries overheated to the point where they actually set laptops ablaze. A few of the flame-ups were caught on tape, including one at a conference in Japan, and quickly showed up on the Internet. The result was a massive recall.

Ain't progress grand?

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